She could conquer anything. Hell gods and demons and master vamps and regular vamps and uber-vamps. She had faced every trial the world and her calling had thrown at her, and she had come out on top. It wasn’t necessarily pretty—she had died twice after all, lost friends and potentials, been so broken that she had physically and mentally run away, been so broke that she had worked at the Double Meat Palace, home of no meat and some demons—but she had always won.
Except for two things. She couldn’t conquer her love life—it was as much a shambles six months after Spike’s immolation and the destruction of Sunnydale as it had ever been (Angelus taunting her the day after, Parker treating her like she was nothing more than some dumb clingy freshman girl, Riley flying away and then storming back with his wife to goad her into destroying everything, Spike saying “No you don’t, but thanks for saying it”)—and she couldn’t conquer the kitchen.
She had no desire to work on her love life. That part of her was behind a closed and locked door that had been sealed and bricked over and then surrounded by vines with sharp thorns that would rip apart any who dared get close. But the kitchen? That she would tackle.
Buffy hadn’t always been a terror in the kitchen. She had once made a Thanksgiving dinner that everyone had raved over after she had taken care of the vengeful spirits of Native Americans hell bent on destroying her meal. (They probably wanted something else too, but it was hard to remember so many years and tragedies later. Mostly her mind got stuck on “A bear! You made a bear!” and how when the arrows were done flying he looked like the voodoo doll owned by a pissed off teenage girl who had recently been broken up with and how he had somehow survived all that. He was good at that: surviving. Until he wasn’t.) But she hadn’t practiced much after that, and after Mom died, when it would have made sense for her to cook more, there had been too much going on for her to do anything but heat up something frozen or canned. And after her resurrection, she couldn’t walk into the kitchen without something burning or boiling over. Maybe being in the ground had leached something away from her after all.
However, she was skilled with knives. She could chop and dice and filet to shame the best sous chefs and prep cooks in the world. When needed, she could pay close attention to something, and she could also leave something alone for hours while still keeping track of it in the back of her mind. She wasn’t great at following instructions, but that’s why she was trying to cook, not bake. She had heard once that you could improvise more with cooking than with baking, and she was great at improvising. Honestly, if she had anything like a normal resume, that would be one of her top skills.
So she’ll learn how to cook and to feed herself and it won’t matter that the one person who truly saw her no longer exists and therefore isn’t around to nag her into eating because he somehow knows she’s had nothing more to eat than a granola bar in the last two days. She will conquer this, and everything will be fine.
When the daze of pain after Sunnydale had subsided into a more easily handled all-consuming grief, the team had met to decide what to do next. It wasn’t the Scoobies anymore—too many people were missing and the additions of Faith, the other slayers, and Angel’s team (they were staying in LA; they couldn’t get away with not including them and Buffy didn’t have the energy to have any thoughts or feelings toward her ex, even the thought that he didn’t need to be involved in their planning) meant it wouldn’t really be the Scoobies anymore, ever again—but combined wisdom said that they should head to England and figure out how to rebuild the Council from there. Faith, Robin (good riddance), and some of the other slayers went to Cleveland to stay on top of the Hellmouth there, a couple slayers stayed in LA with Wesley as their Watcher, and everyone else loaded up to head to England.
Giles dug into the remains of the Council and started rebuilding. Buffy and Dawn found an apartment. Willow and Kennedy broke up. Buffy started training the other slayers. Willow started training new watchers. Xander was sent all over the world to find new baby slayers. Buffy was sent to Moscow to take care of a hell beast that was, frankly, not all that impressive compared to Buffy’s experience of what hell creatures could be. Dawn started school. Willow visited the coven regularly to continue working on her control. Buffy received a regular paycheck that allowed her and Dawn to get a nicer apartment that they decorated exactly as they wanted.
Buffy didn’t eat and didn’t eat and lost a lot of weight she couldn’t afford to lose.
Dawn and Willow gave her a lot of sidelong glances, but they never said anything, just kept ordering takeout they would devour and Buffy would pick at. Until the day Buffy spent a half hour standing in the kitchen and staring before nodding decisively and marching out of the flat. She returned from the library three hours later with cookbooks full of bookmarks and a plan: If there weren’t enough challenges presenting themselves for her to slay, she would tackle the kitchen.
Buffy started small: grilled cheese sandwiches, a salad that was more than just dumping leaves in a bowl, dessert made using a box mix and three other ingredients. Kennedy, a few other slayers, and a watcher who had survived the destruction of the Council were shipped to Australia to guard a hellmouth near Perth and gain experience. Buffy spent a month making pasta dishes that culminated in a weekend with Dawn in which they tried to make their own pasta. Flour coated every bit of their kitchen, half their pasta was delicious and the other half inedible, and Buffy laughed for the first time in months, maybe years.
Xander came back from almost two months spent in Nigeria, and Willow, Dawn, Xander, and Buffy went out to a pub to celebrate. They spent hours there eating and drinking and talking, and when Buffy ate everything on her plate, some of the chips from Dawn’s, and her dessert, Dawn and Willow looked at each other and grinned.
Buffy was sent to settle some baby slayers, a watcher, and a baby watcher in Peru. She returned after a month of on-the-ground training to Dawn learning French, Giles desperate to get away from Dawn’s boy band music that always seemed to be playing when he came by to check on her (a nonchalant shrug and sly smile met Buffy’s “Did you do that on purpose just to annoy him?”; Buffy suspected Dawn hadn’t forgiven Giles for trying to kill Spike any more than she had), and three new cookbooks waiting for her, in pride of place, on the kitchen table.
Over breakfast one morning (black coffee, toast spread lightly with butter and topped with sunny-side-up eggs, orange juice eschewed for coffee and glowering darkly at them from inside the refrigerator), Buffy pointed out that they really didn’t have enough dishes for more than the two of them and maybe they could go shopping so they could perhaps invite everyone over for a meal sometime?
Dawn lit up and immediately went into research mode. That weekend, she, Willow, and Buffy went to the shop she had been assured was the best place to get dishware in their part of London with a list of what they would need to entertain up to ten people. (“Why ten?” “You, me, Giles, Willow, Xander, a couple friends of mine from school, maybe some baby slayers who haven’t been driving you too crazy, maybe with a few left over. It’s always good to have a couple place settings too many than too few.” “Gotcha.” “Do we need soup bowls?” “Are those different from cereal bowls?” “ . . . Maybe?” “So do we just want all-purpose bowls?” “Good call, Buffy.” “Thanks, I’m usually right.” “Unh-hunh. Remind me, who thought dating Angel was such a good idea?” “Shut up. What are your thoughts on silverware?”)
(The ability to joke about and laugh at her past mistakes was new. It helped that even when Xander made the jokes now, they no longer felt like accusations but like reminisces over a past that almost could have happened to someone else. After all, the Buffy of today would have never dated Angel, and the Xander of today would have married Anya without a backward glance.)
The shopping trip was going well until Buffy picked up a novelty mug in the back corner of the store—the logo for Manchester United blazoned across it and in the size he preferred with a sturdy handle and it would have been perfect for him to drink his blood out of—and immediately crumpled to the ground in tears, holding the mug tightly to her stomach. Dawn was by her side in an instant, holding her sister as tightly as Buffy held the mug. Willow returned from the salad bowls she had been perusing and scurried to Buffy’s other side. They held her while she cried, and when the tears subsided, they settled next to her, legs sticking out in front of them and other patrons carefully avoiding the weeping Americans. Willow looked between the mug Buffy held tightly in her hands and Dawn’s concerned eyes, and while she knew nothing about what the logo meant, she knew there was only one thing that would get Buffy to break down like that. She wrapped an arm around Buffy and softly said, “The summer after Tara died, when I had finally started to get control of the magics, the coven insisted that I go see a therapist. They said they could help with the magic, but that a broken heart sometimes needed more than time; it needed someone who could walk with you through your grief. I’m not saying you have to, but I think it might help you to have someone you can talk with who isn’t part of the slaying world, someone who won’t see you as Buffy-the-Hero but Buffy-the-Girl-Who’s-Been-Through-a-Lot. Dawn and I can help you find someone, if you would like.”
They stayed silent after that, Willow rubbing soothing circles into Buffy’s back while Dawn held tightly on to a hand she had pried away from the mug, until Buffy finally nodded. “Okay,” she whispered. “We can try that.”
They left the shop with ten dinner plates; ten smaller plates; a set of either white or red wine glasses, they weren’t sure which; an absurd amount of silverware; ten all-purpose bowls; drink glasses; coffee mugs; a set of wooden spoons; a couple serving bowls and dishes; some glass bakeware Buffy promised to not crack by holding it while getting bad news over the phone; and a Manchester United novelty coffee mug that sat in their flat untouched for seventeen days before becoming Buffy’s go-to mug.
Six days after their dishware shopping extravaganza, Buffy had an appointment with a therapist who was sweet and gentle but could be steel when necessary and who kept a steady supply of tissues on hand.
Christmas that year was quiet: just Buffy and Dawn in the morning, Willow and Xander popping by sometime that afternoon, and Giles stopping in for dinner and leaving shortly afterward with Willow and Xander. She roasted a goose like the Cratchetts in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and there were presents and cheer and the world felt like it might just eventually be right again.
Giles suggested, again, that Buffy and Dawn move to Rome. Apparently there was some Immortal guy who could do with an eye on him. Buffy flatly refused. Her life was now in London, and she felt more at home in a city where occasionally someone would speak and sound like him than she thought she would anywhere else.
(Buffy listened to Manchester U games sometimes while she was in the kitchen. Willow had gotten her a radio almost as soon as Buffy started cooking regularly, and while it was normally tuned to Britain’s Top 40 channel, sometimes the dial found its way to a punk channel or the one that broadcasted the football matches. In those moments—listening to the announcers’ furious discussion of a referee’s call or their jubilation over a play, sinking into The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, and other bands she couldn’t name but was learning to love—it felt like he was with her. She would pour white wine into her butter-bacon-garlic pan and turn down the heat, and he would extol, again, the great genius of Johnny Rotten. She would have stock simmering and would sip white wine while he would consider aloud whether the new centre-midfielder would get his arse out of his head long enough to make it through the season and actually become a solid member of the team.
Sometimes it hurt, and sometimes it gave her joy, and her therapist kept reminding her that it is important to feel your feelings, the good and the bad, and that sometimes grief is crying for their loss and sometimes it’s being angry they’re gone and sometimes it’s being blindsided by something they loved and sometimes, more and more as the process goes on, it’s remembering moments with them with joy and smiling when something they would have loved happens and finding yourself able to do again the things that you did with them, the things you had planned to do together, and the things they loved to do.)
(She never patrolled with just one other person. It was either just her or her and a group of baby slayers out on a training exercise. But never her and one other person. And that, her therapist said, was okay too.)
Angel appeared in London one day asking to see her, and while Buffy hadn’t really spent any time baking, she looked up a chocolate chip cookie recipe, baked a batch, sent most of the cookies in with Dawn to school, and brought the remaining half a dozen cookies with her to the room known as her office at the new Watcher’s Council headquarters. (It was her office, her name and title—“Buffy Summers, Head Slayer”—was on the door and everything, but Buffy mostly used it to house weapons that she loved too much to let the baby slayers near but didn’t keep at home or backups to weapons she liked for daily training as well as the notes she was keeping on each of the baby slayers’ abilities; everyone knew that if Buffy was in the building and they wanted to find her, their best bet was to look for her in the training rooms.) She then sat herself and her cookies down at her desk, curtly indicated that he should sit on the other side of her desk when he entered and seemed to want to go for a hug, and then slowly ate each of the cookies while he talked.
He left shortly after the last cookie was gone, his face growing more and more gloomy as she ate each one without offering him any. Buffy would maybe feel worse about her treatment of him, but between his aborted opening hug and the fact that the avowed reason for his visit was to discuss the progress of the slayers in LA—reports on which were sent to her regularly and much more thoroughly every month by Wesley—it was clear to her that Angel was there to draw her back, to make sure she was still dangling on his hook even when she was an ocean away, and she was, finally, done with that, with him, and with softening that reality for his delicate emotions through convoluted metaphors and kisses that fell on her lips like ash.
Buffy walked home that night feeling the lightest she’d felt in ages. In celebration, and after a winter of rich dumplings and heavy meat pies and hearty soups, she roasted some chicken legs, rinsed and chopped all the fruit they had in the flat, sliced the sharpest cheddar cheese she had been able to find at the store, grabbed a white wine and her sister, and dragged everything out to a park for a picnic. Dawn—studying Latin and Portuguese now, grumbling through calculus, deeply concerned that Buffy had gone off her rocker to drag her out like this on a school night when the weather was still not yet picnic worthy—demanded to know what was going on, and Buffy told the whole story with Dawn cheering in the background.
(Her therapist was equally thrilled to hear it a week later; she was just less high-pitched in her enthusiasm.)
Buffy and Xander went to the middle-of-nowhere Canada. Buffy slayed a snow demon, Xander made cracks about the Abominable Snowman and dentistry, and they returned with two more baby slayers and the strongest friendship they’d had with each other in years.
A few weeks after her Canada trip, Buffy was flying out to LA with an army of slayers to stop Angel’s apocalypse. She wondered idly if his visit a month prior and this apocalypse were at all connected. As she sliced through demons with her scythe, she decided that they weren’t except as signs that Angel was too dramatic for anyone’s peace of mind or safety. She and Faith and three of the slayers who were at Sunnydale’s destruction fought side by side to take down a dragon, and then she went home immediately, not wanting to stick around and be forced to see Angel. She left Andrew behind to keep an eye on clean up and to report to her everything that Wesley didn’t mention in his reports—the man was clearly willing to give her all the details on her slayers, but a looming apocalypse he had somehow deemed not worth bothering her over until it was almost too late for her to show up—and promising to send a few more slayers to help him keep an eye on things.
Buffy had wanted to throw a dinner party on the anniversary of the Sunnydale’s destruction, get everyone together so no one would be alone, but after coming together for an apocalypse, everyone had scattered again. Willow was off for her regular monthly week with the coven, Xander was in Sri Lanka, Dawn was off on a school trip in Greece, and she still needed another person to serve as a buffer between her and Giles. So she instead made a four-course meal for one, enjoyed every bite of it, went out until almost daybreak to slay any baddie that crossed her path, and then went home to get very, very drunk on some cheap whiskey that would have horrified Spike even as it made him proud.
It was summer, a year and change after Sunnydale. (Four hundred seven days after him, her treacherous mind reminded her.) The kitchen was the most lived-in room of their flat. Xander had broken one of the kitchen table’s legs by sitting on the table when he was visiting one day, and he had replaced it and the chairs with Xander Harris originals. He had also built a bookshelf that fit perfectly in the one awkward corner their kitchen had, and Willow had stocked it with cookbooks. They had one sunny window that Dawn had filled with herbs and a pretty porcelain bowl that housed whatever fruit they had. Through trial and error, Buffy had arranged the drawers and cupboards and countertops so that everything in their kitchen fit and she always knew where to find things. (It was the same process by which she had ordered her weapons first in Sunnydale—at home, in the library, in the Magic Box’s training room—and then in England—first in their first flat and then their second one, in her office, in her training rooms. The only difference was the weapons, as a whole, were sharper.) Buffy, with her hair in a high ponytail and her hands thoroughly scrubbed up to her elbows, had decided it was time to tackle baking. Specifically, bread making. Specifically, French bread. It was summer and she wanted bruschetta and crisp bread spread thickly with butter and she would have it even if she died trying.
The sun had been rising when she started her first attempt. It was now setting and Buffy was briskly kneading her fifth attempt (the fury at stupid vampires who didn’t believe they were loved had finally bled out of her system by the time she was kneading her third attempt, and who would believe that kneading could be almost as cathartic as slaying?) when someone knocked on their front door. Dawn was out for the weekend, and Buffy huffed the wisps of hair that had slipped out of her ponytail out of her eyes and stood quietly, hoping it was just a package delivery and that she wouldn’t have to answer it right then. A follow-up knock dashed her hopes, and she pulled her hands from the dough, glared at it so it wouldn’t get any bright ideas while she was gone, and went to the door, all sticky hands, apron decorated with a slogan (“Kiss the cook, she’ll break your nose” courtesy of Dawn), and flour across her stomach, arms, and face. She opened the door, fully prepared to be either polite yet distant or cold and distant, depending upon who was on the other side, so that she could get back to her kitchen as quickly as possible.
But then . . .
(When the amulet spat Spike back out as a ghost in LA, he learned a few things almost immediately: Buffy had been in LA, she no longer was there, Angel wouldn’t tell him where she had gone, and Angel had forbidden anyone on his team from contacting her on Spike’s behalf or otherwise letting her know that he was back. Angel then immediately got on his “Buffy is better off in the light and living a normal life and it wouldn’t be fair of either of us to force ourselves into her life and thus ruin it for her” soapbox. Which was pretty much bollocks, but if you listened to anything long enough it was hard to not begin believing it, and with Spike being trapped in Wolfram and Hart’s offices, he had a front row seat every day to Angel’s messaging.
A month into being incorporeal, Spike had discovered that there was a slayer contingent in LA and that Wesley was regularly sending Buffy reports on the girls. The slayerettes never came to the offices, though, and once he was corporeal, he could no longer sneak as easily into Wesley’s office to read his reports or Buffy’s terse replies (a novelist, his girl was not), and so he lost even those slim links to her.
It killed him, but he was already dead. He could handle a little more pain. Angel’s word echoed in his head, crisis after crisis popped up in LA, and he stayed in the City of Angels even as every cell in his body screamed for him to go out and find her.
Angel disappeared for a few days, and Spike firmly ignored the office rumor that he had gone to visit the new Watcher’s Council. He had things to do in LA, and he couldn’t be bothered by his wanker of a grandsire or his actions, even if those actions were to find Giles and, Spike speculated, get an address for Buffy out of him so they could do the whole big reunion thing again.
(Spike tried not to be too giddy when Angel returned four days after he left, distinctly more irritable and inclined to brood than his normal self. Even if Peaches had gone to London to drag Buffy’s address out of Giles, he clearly didn’t get it. There was no way Peaches had made it to London, then off to whatever warm, exotic locale Buffy had found herself in, and then back to LA in just four days. Spike hoped the Watcher gave the Great Poof a right piece of his mind before sending him back home.)
After Angel’s return, there wasn’t too much time to bask in the glow of his bad humor as the gear up for an apocalypse began. It was looking to be a right end times, until an army of mini-slayers descended on the city, destroyed everything in their path, and returned from where they came in what felt like an incredibly lucid fever dream.
They left behind the bodies of dead demons, the corpse of a dragon, and Andrew, who immediately suctioned himself to Spike’s side with eyes wide in hero-worship and a mouth that couldn’t stop talking. Of course, it was never about anything he cared about. Not Buffy, not the Niblet. Even when Spike tried asking about Buffy, Andrew simply sighed wistfully, quoted Shakespeare incorrectly, and started nattering on about Star Trek or grand destines again.
Figures, the Great Forehead would get to Andrew too and demand he not reveal anything about his girls.
With Wolfram and Hart destroyed, the team moved back to the hotel that had headquartered Angel Investigations. Wesley kept up his watcher duties with Andrew now to assist him, and they eventually decided (over Angel’s protests) that it made more sense to move the six slayers stationed in LA into the hotel as well. Part of a floor of the hotel was set aside for them, and the basement was turned into a training room.
Spike tried to stay out of their way. They were all slayers, but none of them were his Slayer, and he wanted nothing to do with them. Except one day Andrew came to say that Wesley wanted him in the training room, and like a good little vampire with no other purpose at the current moment, he trotted along, grumbling the entire way.
“Ahh, Spike,” Wesley acknowledged him, clearly about to say more except the room came to a screeching halt.
“Spike?” A girl in front demanded, giving him a gimlet stare that swept from his face to his boots and back again. “As in, the vampire Spike? Buffy’s Spike? Buffy’s dusted, unable to be resurrected, bunch of ash blowing at the bottom of a crater Spike?”
Before he could answer or even consider the titles the chit had just given him (Buffy’s Spike?), a girl from the back stepped forward. She looked vaguely familiar, like she might have been from Sunnydale when things were both better and worse than they were now. She twirled a stake in her fingers and gave him a hard look: “That’s him.”
Wesley spoke up. “Yes, this is Spike. William the Bloody. He’s been working with Angel’s team in LA for a while now.” His tone clearly conveyed that he was attempting to quell any hero-worshiping that might be bubbling in their breasts, but Spike could read their eyes. The only way they were experiencing hero worship was if the feeling had somehow been transmuted into expressing itself as looks of righteous fury since the last time Andrew had looked at him.
“And you’ve known he’s been here for how long, Wes?” A third girl, also reminiscent of Sunnydale, asked the Watcher.
All six slayers stationed at LA were in the training room, and all six of them were giving them both the steely glares characteristic of slayers.
“The entire time he’s been here?” It came out a question. Wesley might have gone through and changed a lot in the last few years, but there was nothing like a roomful of inexplicably brassed off women, especially ones who also happened to be slayers, to bring out a man’s innate nancy boy-ness.
“Which has been how long?” The first girl asked again, her chin up and eyes hard.
“Since nineteen days after Sunnydale was destroyed.” Spike’s statement came out strong. Definitely a statement. No nancy boy question about it. He might have no idea what was going on, but he’d been a vampire for too long to show how nervous these women were making him.
As one, the glares turned to him. “And you didn’t tell her?” screeched out from somewhere to his right. The yelling began in earnest then, until Andrew raced all self-important into the room and the fireworks turned on him. “You knew, you little twerp! You knew how sad she was! Why didn’t you say something?”
It took a while. There was a lot of yelling to get through, but Spike finally had the sense of it. Buffy had been practically catatonic with grief after Sunnydale, after his loss. The slayers who had been with her in Sunnydale and who had stayed behind in LA had seen it. And as the council rebuilt, as she had begun training new slayers and taking some on different missions across the world, it was clear to the slayers who didn’t know the entire story that she had still been in mourning and depressed. Even when she had started eating again. (“You should have seen her. She took down a demon twice her size in Istanbul all the while looking like a stiff breeze would knock her over.”) Even when she started joining the slayerettes sometimes when they went out drinking. (“She’d start the evening out fine, but eventually she would just get sad and quiet. One time we had to get Dawn to come pick her up; she was crying over an ash tray and refused to leave it, saying it smelled right but that she hated the dust.”) They knew Mr. Giles had been her Watcher, but no one ever saw just the two of them talking. The first time they really heard her laugh was in February when Willow had said something to her and she had barked out a laugh like it surprised herself. Every once in a while she told the slayers she trained stories Spike featured in. She always became a little wistful while sharing those stories, both sadder and happier, and one especially young girl had bluntly asked whether she missed him; it was hard to tell with how often she called him an idiot. “Every single day” had been the answer.
At that, he had turned to Andrew, lifted him up, and shook him hard. “Her address. What is it?”
“But your mission! The vampire Angelus said you had a mission here bestowed upon you by the Powers and that Buffy would just distract you!”
“Sod all that rot. What. Is. Her. Bloody. Address?”
Andrew rattled it out, and Spike finally set the boy down. He turned to look at the slayers, their faces grimly satisfied even as they still clearly disapproved of him. “Ta, ladies. Been great chatting, but I have a girl to see.”
His duffel was packed with his things and he was off to LAX before the hour had passed. From there he flew to JFK and then Heathrow, and the next night he was standing in front of her door.)
She slammed the door in his face.
It was instinctual. Buffy had spent months opening that door and it not being him despite her wildest, most rarely indulged in fantasies, and now that it was him the only response was to slam the door in his face. She leaned her forehead against the door, breath coming as hard as if she had taken out a nest of twenty or more vampires all by herself and with only one stake, and she tried to will her body to open the door again. Because there was no way it was him—he was dust at the bottom of a crater. But there was no way it was anyone but him—she had never told anyone about “hello, cutie”; it was too unimportant in the lead up to her fight with Angelus, then she was gone, then she was back and it was still unimportant, and then he was gone and it was too important to share.
The knock came again. “Buffy?”
She opened the door. He looked, if possible, even more nervous than when she had first opened it, hands jammed into the pockets of his duster (his duster!) and eyes looking carefully up at her through his eyelashes (god, his eyes; the blue of them was electric).
“Spike?” The whisper came from her throat.
He smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, love, it’s me.
Buffy was alive and dead in that moment with all her dreams a foot away from her. She was on fire and ice cold, drowning and dying of thirst, and she knew of only one solution.
Buffy threw herself at Spike—floury apron, sticky hands, and all—and yanked his head down for a kiss.
Ten minutes later, he was in her home—his duster on the floor, her apron tossed in a corner—and he had her sitting on the kitchen table with her legs wrapped around him as they kissed and whispered I love yous and completely ignored the dough resting on the counter.